The Dig is an unexpectedly lovely little film, one of those seemingly genteel English period pieces set in the lush countryside but which pack a punch of subtle heft. Based on a novel of the same name by John Preston, this is a beautifully realized tale set around the real-life excavation of Sutton Hoo in England in 1938, one which was supposed to be of great archaeological significance and the results of which are still housed in the British Museum.
The skies are collectively darkening over Europe with the threat of war imminent. Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who has her own fascination with archaeological findings, hires excavator/archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to explore and dig in the mounds on her property in the hope of finding something of historical significance in them. Basil Brown is a gentle, soft-spoken man of quiet determination, one who doesn’t have the fancy degrees to back up his work but instead learned his trade from his father and due to his own passion. Somewhat looked down upon because of this, when the widow offers him a higher rate than his place of employment, the Ipswich Museum, he decides to take her up on the offer. They form a quiet kinship toward each other almost from the off and it isn’t long before Basil Brown realizes he has struck the proverbial (and literal) gold as far as the excavation goes. For there is a ship buried in the mounds, which he believes (and is initially scoffed at by other ‘experts’) dates back to the Anglo-Saxon period and could be of huge archaeological significance. The greedy experts soon land at the site to grab a piece of the pie while trying to shoulder Basil out of the way. But Edith holds firm on Basil’s significance to the project. She herself hides long-festering regrets and hurt behind the calm façade she presents, more so due to health problems which cause her to fret about her son’s future. Her son, meanwhile, has taken a shine to Basil as a sort of father figure and the bond grows between them.
Strands of the story spread out to take in some other characters. As a part of the dig team comes Stuart Piggot (Ben Chaplin) and his wife, Peggy (Lily James), who herself is a budding archaeologist. The problems in their marriage come to the fore especially when Lily makes the acquaintance of Edith’s cousin, Rory (Johnny Flynn), who has come to help Basil, and sparks in her a sense of the feeling that’s missing from her own relationship. Rory is going to be off to join the RAF and induces further worry in Edith, considering the dangers inherent in that with a war on the way. As the excavations go on, the burgeoning narrative of Britain joining the hostilities plays out in the background. The eventuality of this will cause all diggings to cease, which adds another element of urgency to the whole effort.
It’s a perfectly paced and acted film. The dig itself is pivotal, but the way the stories of the people around it have been brought out is remarkably elegant. Edith and Basil are at the heart of the story and it is absolutely refreshing to find a beautifully portrayed platonic relationship developing between the leads in a film. Basil himself is married relatively happily, and his quiet dignity would probably not allow anything to go beyond the bounds of decency anyway. Edith nurses her worries and cares with equal dignity. Both these characters reach out to us, primarily because the actors playing them are brilliant. Ralph Fiennes brings out the humble but steely resolve and simplicity of his character with consummate perfection and this role has to be one of his best, while Carey Mulligan is exceptional as well. The supporting acts too are exquisitely portrayed, whether it’s the lovelorn Lily James or the charmingly real Johnny Flynn. The cinematography stands out for the way it brings the lovely countryside to life with unobtrusive frames.
This Netflix film is probably not being noticed as much as it should be. Nevertheless, it is well worth the time one spends on it and shouldn’t be missed.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.